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1980 Election

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1980 Election

The 1980 Presidential Election was a clear decision by American voters that the economic problems and foreign policy woes of the nation required new leadership. Most voters had lost faith in the Carter Administration's handling of economic matters with high inflation at the center of most Americans' troubles.

A Hollywood star, turned politician offered to "make America great again" and promised to restore economic growth and strength internationally. In this article, we examine the major candidates and the issues that were central to their campaigns. The results of the 1980 presidential election are explored in addition to the key demographics and significance of this election in U.S. History.

1980 Presidential Election Candidates

The 1980 Presidential contest came down to the incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter running for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan. The party primaries resulted in two starkly different choices. Carter ran on his record which was unfavorable to many citizens, especially when examining political opinion polls. Reagan asked a profound question of the voters: "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?" which became an effective and reused political message.

Incumbent:

The candidate that holds office in the present administration. When the current administration enjoys public approval it could be said that the "incumbent" plays with "home advantage." the contrary happens when the administration is unpopular.

1980 presidential election, campaign bumper sticker to re-elect Carter Mondale, StudySmarter1980 presidential election, campaign bumper sticker for Reagan and Bush, StudySmarter

1980 Presidential Election campaign bumper stickers. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Jimmy Carter: The 1980 Democratic Candidate

Jimmy Carter grew up in rural Georgia where he was a peanut farmer before becoming a naval officer right after World War Two. Carter's career would span Georgia politics from lawmaker to Governor before being elected U.S. President in 1976. His presidency was faced with Cold War tension with the Soviet Union and the worst economic period since the Great Depression.

1980 Presidential Election, Photo of President Jimmy Carter 1977, StudySmarter

Presidential Portrait Jimmy Carter. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ronald Reagan: The 1980 Republican Candidate

Ronald Reagan grew up in Illinois before starting an acting career in Hollywood. Reagan's film career was punctuated by military service before and throughout World War Two, during which he made two hundred films for the government. After his Army career, Reagan worked for General Electric and was President of the Screen Actors Guild. The former Democrat switched to the Republican Party and was elected Governor of California. After six years in office, Reagan ran unsuccessfully for the 1976 Republican Party nomination for President.

1980 Presidential Election, Photo of President Ronald Reagan 1981, StudySmarter

Presidential Portrait Ronald Reagan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1980 Vice Presidential Candidates

Carter maintained his Vice President, Walter Mondale on the ticket billed as "A Tested and Trustworthy Team." Reagan chose his rival primary opponent, George H. W. Bush as his running mate and ran under the banner "Let's Make America Great Again" for his 1980 campaign.

The Opinions of the American Public:

A Time-Yankelovich, Skelly & White Poll, in October 1980 asked participants:

  • "How do you feel that things are going in the country these days: 'Very well,' 'Fairly well,' 'Pretty badly' or 'Very badly'?"

The results:

  • 43% said 'Pretty badly'
  • 25% said 'Very badly'
  • 29% said 'Fairly well'
  • 3% said 'Very well'

Polling was clear to point out the unhappiness of the majority of the nation heading into the 1980 election.

1980 Election Issues

The Economy

The big issue weighing on voters in 1980 was economic stagflation. Double-digit annual inflation and unemployment of 7.5%1 overshadowed Carter's plans to conserve energy and reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles.

Stagflation:

Stagflation is a period of slow economic growth and relatively high unemployment –or economic stagnation— which is at the same time accompanied by rising prices (i.e. inflation).2

The Cold War

The continued tensions during the Cold War did not help Carter as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. President Carter joined an international boycott by 65 nations that refused to send athletes to the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow, the capital of the U.S.S.R. A continued military build-up and a renewed space race renewed the focus on military hardware, nuclear weapons, and the potential for war.

The Iran Hostage Crisis

The crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran further dragged down Carter's approval after the Americans held by the Iranians continued captive for months. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage by Islamic fundamentalists protesting the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran. The hostages were subsequently released after 444 days on the exact day of Reagans' inauguration. The Carter Administration was widely criticized for mishandling the situation and projecting weakness internationally.

Foreign and Domestic policies

Many questioned Carter's leadership and his inability to solve the nation's problems. Meanwhile, Carter continued to focus on Reagan's unconventional approach to government which Carter saw as dangerous on the world stage. Reagan addressed the threat of Soviet Communism globally and pushed forward an economic and political realignment in America. A central theme of Reagans' conservative agenda was a reduction in the size of the federal government and massive tax cuts.

1980 Election Results

Candidate
Political Party
Electoral Votes
Popular Votes
✔Ronald Reagan
Republican
489 (270 needed to win)
43,900,000
Jimmy Carter (incumbent)
Democrat
49
35,400,000

1980 Presidential Election Results. Source: StudySmarter Original.

1980 Presidential Election Electoral Map

1980 presidential election, map of the electoral count, StudySmarter

1980 Presidential Electoral Vote. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

1980 Election Demographics

Even though the election was not tight, there were a few close states such as Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Arkansas all with less than 5,200 votes setting the candidates apart. Reagan's support among traditional Democratic voters was striking as 28% of liberals and 49% of moderates voted for the Republican candidate. Reagan easily won the Republican and Independent voters. In addition, he edged out Carter in both the male and female vote with clear victories in the white, 30 and older and middle-income demographics.

Carter received strong support from blacks, Hispanics, lower-income and union voters. This wasn't enough to make a significant difference. Overall, Reagan won all regions of the nation and a broad national mandate to tackle big government, increase military spending and reduce taxes.

1980 Presidential Election Significance

The Reagan victory in 1980 was a landslide. Carter won only Washington, D.C., and six out of 50 states. The margin of 489 to 49 electoral votes was nothing short of dramatic. In addition, Ronald Reagan won over 50% of the popular vote and made strong gains in traditionally-Democratic areas around the country. Not since 1932 had an incumbent President lost to a challenger. Moreover, Reagan (aged 69) became the oldest President elected in history until that time.

The Republican victory also included the U.S. Senate which became controlled by Republicans for the first time in 25 years. The New Deal coalition begun by Franklin Roosevelt had been weakened as more voters looked to conservativism as the solution. The new period in Presidential politics became known as the Reagan Era which lasted until the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Historians have debated whether the Trump Presidency was a continuation of the Reagan Era or a separate style of presidential authority.

1980 Election - Key takeaways

  • The incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter ran for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan who asked: "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?"
  • Cold War tensions and the Iran Hostage Crisis were important campaign issues.
  • The big issue weighing on voters in 1980 was economic stagflation. There was double-digit annual inflation and 7.5% unemployment.
  • A central theme of Reagans' conservative agenda was a reduction in the size of the federal government and massive tax cuts.
  • Overall, Reagan won all regions of the nation and a broad national mandate to tackle big government, increase military spending and reduce taxes.
  • The Reagan victory in 1980 was a landslide win with Carter winning only Washington, D.C., and six out of 50 states. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.

Notes:

  1. 7.5% annual inflation according to the 1980 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
  2. Investopedia, "Stagflation," 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions about 1980 Election

Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate won the election. 

Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election due to public dissatisfaction with his handling of major events, particularly inflation and unfavorable economic conditions. 

Reagan's forward-looking approach appealed to a large number of voters.  The economy was the central concern for most Americans.

The Iran-Hostage Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and poor economic conditions led to Reagan's win. 

Reagan won with a total of 489 electoral votes 489 to Carter's  49 electoral votes. 

Final 1980 Election Quiz

Question

Which of the following was a major 1980 campaign issue?

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Answer

inflation

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Question

What was the economic condition of the late 1970s that plagued the Carter Administration?

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Answer

stagflation

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Question

Which of the following is the best definition of stagflation?

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Answer

slow economic growth and relatively high unemployment-or economic stagnation—which is at the same time accompanied by rising prices

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Question

What political party did Carter and Mondale represent in 1980?

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Answer

Democrat

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Question

What political party did Reagan and Bush represent in the 1980 election?

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Answer

Republican

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Question

Which of the following were international crises during the Carter Administration?

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Answer

Iran Hostage Crisis

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Question

Who won more popular votes in the 1980 election?

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Answer

Ronald Reagan

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Question

What question did Reagan ask voters?

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Answer

"Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?" 

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Question

What changes did Reagan propose?

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Answer

Cutting taxes

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Question

American voters in 1980 clearly voted on the economy and U.S. standing internationally.

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Answer

True

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Question

The 1980 election was considered a landslide victory for the Democrats' New Deal Coalition and policies.

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Answer

False

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Question

Reagan offered a plan to do which of the following?

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Answer

Increase U.S. power against the Soviet Union

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